Monday Q&A: CEO recalls Community Hospice career in Modesto

kcarlson@modbee.comJuly 7, 2013 

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    alternate textKen Carlson
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: County government, health and medicine, air quality, the environment and public pension systems
    Bio: Ken Carlson has worked 13 years for The Bee, covering local government agencies in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. His in-depth reporting has focused on access to health care and public employee pensions.
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— After 17 years as chief executive officer of Community Hospice of Modesto, Harold Peterson III has retired.

He oversaw expansion of a nonprofit hospice that last year provided care to more than 1,800 patients and their families in Stanislaus and nearby counties. Beyond medical and nursing care, Community Hospice offers bereavement support to those who have lost loved ones. The Modesto- based nonprofit cares for patients in their homes and operates a 16-bed inpatient facility called Alexander Cohen Hospice House in Hughson.

The organization has six Hope Chest thrift stores, a logistics and recycling center, a durable medical-equipment division and a foundation that raises additional funds to support the hospice mission.

When he started directing the organization 17 years ago, it was a dramatic career change for Peterson, who had worked for 23 years as a supervisor and manager for a major food-processing company. He is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War and has a history of involvement with Rotary, the Private Industry Council, Second Harvest Food Bank, Hughson Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Stanislaus County and other groups.

C. Desha McLeod takes over today as president and CEO of Community Hospice. Peterson was asked about his career with the group and his involvement with end-of-life care.

Q: During your career, you made a major contribution to expanding hospice services in our region. How did you become interested in Community Hospice?

A: In October 1995, David Benn was the board chairman of Community Hospice and chief executive officer of Memorial Medical Center. I was in a career transition after being at Tri Valley Growers for 23 years. Dave was looking for a replacement for the executive director position at Community Hospice, so he asked me if I would manage the organization on a consulting, part-time basis.

At the time, I had no idea what hospice was or did. I agreed to meet Dave and the Community Hospice staff at their building at 601 McHenry Ave. When I walked into the bereavement room for the first time, I was struck by the imprints of a little baby's feet hanging on the wall next to a picture of a 35-year-old woman who had been a patient. I recognized the picture as the wife of a man I worked with at Tri Valley Growers for more than 20 years. I felt a tugging at my heart that this is where I belonged.

Q: What did you do before your work with Community Hospice?

A: My career began when I was drafted into the Army. I spent 15 months in training, including Officer Candidate School, where I graduated as a second lieutenant with theU.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 1967, I served in Korea, including building a road inside the DMZ and, in 1968, I was transferred to Vietnam. It was there I learned about grief and loss, but was never allowed the time to do either.

I came home and finished my studies at Modesto Junior College before getting married in 1971 and going to work for Tri Valley Growers, where I would spend the next 23 years working my way up in the organization. The last seven years I spent as a senior vice president of distribution for Tri Valley Growers.

Q: Why has Community Hospice been a successful nonprofit organization?

A: The true success of Community Hospice has come from staying focused on the mission of the organization. Having excellent boards of directors, the ability to take a few risks and use good business skills when focusing on the health care mission all played a role. We also have been very entrepreneurial in our approach. Of course, we could not have done any of this without the Community Hospice Foundation and Friends of Hospice raising funds for us.

Q: What are some of the biggest accomplishments of Community Hospice?

A: That can be measured in several ways. We have built buildings — the Haig and Isabel Berberian Patient Services Center on Spyres Way in Modesto, Samaritan Village in Hughson and our crown jewel, Alexander Cohen Hospice House. We purchased a logistics and recycling warehouse in the Beard Industrial District. We operate six thrift stores in Manteca, Oakdale, Ceres and Modesto, and our durable medical- equipment division that provides medical equipment for more than 200 patients every day.

All of this has been done to care for people who are dying from a terminal disease, regardless of their ability to pay. But the biggest accomplishment has been being invited into more than 12,000 different patients' and families' lives during their greatest hours of need.

Q: How was the money raised for building Alexander Cohen Hospice House? Did you receive a large contribution at some point?

A: In 1999, John and June Rogers offered to build and pay for Alexander Cohen Hospice House, which now stands in Hughson. In exchange, the Rogerses asked Community Hospice to help manage the construction and operations of Samaritan Village. The Rogerses lived up to their commitment, and so did Community Hospice. They also challenged the community to match the money they would spend on the Hospice House to use as operational monies to equip, decorate, landscape and fill the planned shortfalls in revenues.

In early May 2000, John Rogers and I visited The Modesto Bee editorial staff to tell of this challenge, and a front-page story was published about the coming Hospice House. Over the next six months, we organized and created a capital campaign committee. The committee worked hard for more than a year, and by the end of 2001, we had received 753 gifts equaling $4,120,000.

Leonard and Jean Cohen gave us the largest campaign gift of $1,100,000 in honor of Leonard's father, and the name of Alexander Cohen was added to our Hospice House. As a side note, it is the only business decision I have ever made where we built something to operate knowing that we would always lose money. It has lived up to that expectation.

Q: What advice are you giving to the new chief executive officer?

A: I am convinced that my replacement, C. Desha McLeod, knows the hospice business, from a regulatory and business basis. There is an opportunity for her to keep the organization moving and adapting to the changing health care and regulatory environment. More than ever, we will be partnered with major hospitals, affordable-care organizations, long-term-care facilities, physicians and, of course, the thousands of loyal supporters of this organization.

Q: What is your message to the community as you leave the post?

A: I want people to understand the accomplishments of Community Hospice, which started in 1979 with two volunteer nurses. Today, our care extends to nearly 260 patients on a daily basis because of the support we received from the community. So as I leave, I'd like to say thank you. Everyone's gifts come to us in different ways. Some volunteer their time, while others provide talents and many donate resources.

Community Hospice has a huge responsibility to continue to earn the trust and faith of our community. As we have done in the past, we will continue to be there for those in our community with a life-limiting illness and their loved ones.

Q: What are your plans for retirement?

A: My plans are to spend time playing golf, continuing my involvement in Modesto Rotary, traveling in my motor home, visiting family in Iowa, watching our grandchildren play soccer and baseball. I will no doubt be asked to be the bookkeeper, janitor and errand boy at my wife's retail store, the Paper Habit.

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